At Last! $72 million underpass project to open Friday

A crowd of 350 city officials, neighbors and residents celebrated the opening of the SE Main/20-21st Street underpass on Monday. (Photos/City of Moorhead.)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

So this is what $72 million looks like!

A city rejoiced – and neighbors celebrated – Monday, as city leaders and hundreds of residents gathered Monday to cut the ribbon on Moorhead’s long-awaited railroad underpasses on Southeast Main Avenue and 20th and 21st Streets.

Four years of construction and as many days of detours are coming to an end Friday. As speakers praised the city’s largest-in-history infrastructure project, Mayor Shelly Carlson lauded the life-saving access the new routes below the BNSF Railway and Otter Tail Valley Railroad tracks: “We finally have an area where our police, firefighters, ambulances and other emergency responders can count on crossing from north to south without a thought of rerouting around trains. This new crossing will literally save Moorhead lives.”

The mayor added, “Convenience is a secondary benefit, too … though we don’t invest $72 million just for convenience.” After four years of detours and alternate routes, the ease of crossing from the south side to the north, she said, will be a tremendous relief.

Some 350 residents gathered with city officials and staff, representatives of Ames Construction and SJR Consulting Group and Minnesota Department of Transportation Commission Nancy Daubenberger to cut the symbolic ribbon that opened the complex web of rail overpasses and below-grade automotive routes. Though that signaled completion, the project won’t be totally finished until later this fall. Construction crews were still working on landscaping and wrapping up details this week. BNSF’s wye – the triangular mainline rail junction that will allow incoming trains the ability to travel in either direction, or pass from one line to the other – won’t be completed until this fall. That structure will prevent trains from having to stop and back up to make the turn, a maneuver that has accounted for a good share of the city’s notorious blocked crossings.

In her remarks, Carlson marveled at the sheer size of the intersections. “Until you literally stand here, you can’t really absorb the enormity of this project.”

Commissioner Daubenberger echoed her reaction: “I’m so impressed, and so glad I’ve gotten to see this up close.” She noted that, though the largest project in Moorhead’s history, it will soon be eclipsed by the double underpasses on 11th Street, now estimated to come in at $110 million. “These projects,” she said, “can help change lives and help with the city’s future development.

Carlson thanked the neighborhood residents and small businesses for their forbearance during the construction process, which extended longer than anticipated due to unstable soil conditions, the pandemic and issues with BNSF’s temporary tracks. “You shouldered the burden – all the noise, vibrations, dust, dirt and loss of sleep you have have had to endure over the years. Yet you have persevered,” she said. “We appreciate your patience so very, very much.”

City engineer Bob Zimmerman admonished, “Good things take time. Great things take a bit longer.”

As a way of saying thanks, the city gave away meal vouchers for sloppy joes, chips and ice cream cones. With the musical duo Blue Red Roses playing in the background, the crowd picked up their meals in two tents set up by The Freez, the ice cream shop overlooking the soon-to-open roadway.

The reopened and unimpeded tangle of newly constructed streets is expected to carry 20,000 vehicles every day.

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